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The United Nations: Our hope for the future

The United Nations: Our hope for the future

Hon. Phil Goff Speech to the United Nations Association of New Zealand Forum Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Wellington

9am, Wednesday, 26 March 2003

Thank you for the opportunity to open your forum. The focus of your discussions is the hope that we have for the future, for peace, prosperity and a fairer and more just world.

It was these hopes which led to the establishment of the United Nations following the second war to devastate the world in the first half of the twentieth century.

Today, we discuss the topic of hope amidst the despair of the death and destruction of a war in Iraq, and the questioning of the relevance of the UN.

The Iraq war represents the failure of international consensus and efforts to achieve the agreed goal of Iraqi disarmament by peaceful means. It represents a failure to resolve an international problem through multilateral channels.

For the critics of the United Nations, it represents a failure of that organisation. They have accused the UN of lacking credibility and relevance.

As views over how to deal with Iraq polarised within the international community, the UN was increasingly thrust into a no – win situation.

The Security Council in passing that Resolution had agreed unanimously on the goal of disarmament. Deep divisions subsequently emerged over the timing and methods to achieve that goal.

The United States and other members of the Coalition were determined that Iraq should be disarmed by force if after a short period of time it failed to comply with Resolution 1441.

It was a no-win situation because if the Security Council had passed the second resolution proposed by the UK / US / Spain, many around the world would have dismissed that outcome as representing the enormous influence and pressure that the United States as the world’s sole super–power is able to exert on other countries.

It would not therefore have been regarded by some within the international community as properly legitimising the use of force or of being a genuine exercise in multilateral decision-making.

On the other hand, the failure to pass a second resolution, in the end not put - because it appeared unlikely to be able to muster majority support, simply led to coalition countries bypassing the UN process and unilaterally taking military action.

The US President criticised the UN as not being a responsible body. With the US opting out of the multilateral process, the UN was seen as failing to constrain its most powerful member within its decision - making processes.

Parallels have inevitably been drawn with the League of Nations in the 1930’s when that body proved unable to prevent the rise of fascism, to curb the aggression of major powers and to prevent the second world war.

While the war in Iraq does graphically represent the constraints on the power of the UN to control its members’ actions or failure thereof, the analogy with League of Nations has limited value.

The League was regarded as having such irrelevancy that two of the three most powerful countries in the world at that time did not bother to join it.

The United Nations today represents nearly every country in the world, some 191 nations. The decision by President Bush last October to take the Iraq issue to the UN indicated his Administration’s recognition of the value and desirability of having a UN mandate.

The difference in the readiness of the public in countries such as the UK and Australia to support military action against Iraq depending on whether or not it was UN–mandated, also reflects a popular view of the importance of having that mandate.

The UN has, of course, failed on many occasions to resolve issues and to avoid conflict over the 57 years of its existence.

It has been written off many times for not being able to achieve what was beyond its power.

As Shashi Tharoor, UN Undersecretary for Communications and Public Information, has aptly put it “the United Nations at its best is a mirror of the world. It reflects our divisions and disagreements as well as our hopes and convictions”.

The UN has been buried many times by critics, but it has survived.

It has survived because the world does need a multilateral forum and a framework of international rules to create order and assist security.

Whatever difficultly the UN has had in trying to manage divided international opinion over the use of force against Iraq, I believe the UN will be found once more to be essential in managing the post–conflict situation in Iraq.

It will be essential firstly in addressing Iraq’s humanitarian needs.

Already the Security Council is discussing a draft resolution on continuing the Oil for Food programme.

The Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Assistance will have responsibility for raising money and ensuring assistance is delivered to those in need.

A range of UN agencies – the World Food Programme, UNICEF, the UN High Commission for Refugees, the UNDP and the Mine Action Service – will spring into action to alleviate hardship and suffering in the civilian population.

There will also be the need for UN action to re-establish post-conflict governance and civil functions in Iraq.

I read with interest the recent statement by Clare Short, the UK's Secretary for Development, who has just returned from discussions with UN officials. She emphasised the key role which the UN will need to play, noting that "without a UN mandate for the reconstruction of Iraq, coalition countries would have the status of occupying powers under international law following military action. This would severely hinder Iraq's longer-term development prospects, as steps to reform Iraqi government institutions would be illegal under international law".

While it is not yet clear what role the UN will perform after the conflict, a close analogy to the current situation is Kosovo in 1999.

In that situation, NATO had waged war against Yugoslav forces without an explicit UN mandate.

The Security Council subsequently authorised the Secretary-General to establish "an international civil presence." That mandate included promoting self-government, carrying out basic civilian administration functions, overseeing the development of democratic institutions, supporting reconstruction and humanitarian aid and maintaining civil law and order.

The UN's role in that instance also included the holding of elections to create legitimate government.

While the UN may have been sidelined by countries opting for unilateral action against Iraq, it is somewhat ironic that it may be called upon to pick up the pieces after the conflict.

Those challenging the relevance of the UN also of course ignore the critical role it plays in wider areas of development, human rights, refugees and the environment.

No other organisation is able to confront the plethora of cross-border challenges: global diseases including HIV/AIDS, malaria and TB, climate change, environmental degradation, refugee issues, people smuggling, human rights, poverty and hunger. If anything stands as a test to the United Nations, it is how it responds to these cross-border challenges.

Against the backdrop of the war in Iraq, the UN carries on: for example last week it concluded this year's session of the Special Committee on Peacekeeping Issues, earlier this month the Commission on the Status of Women met and the annual Commission on Human Rights commenced.

The UN system continues to set the international norms by which every member state should abide. In today's globalising world, no member state, no matter how powerful it is, can disengage from multilateralism entirely.

The UN remains a relevant organisation and will continue to have a central role to play in the 21st Century.

Notwithstanding media criticism of the United Nations, what seems to be forgotten is that the organisation is only as strong as the will of its member states.

The United Nations system relies on the collective will of all its members. It is these member states that set its priorities. The UN cannot act without their consent. It falls therefore upon us all to make the UN relevant in today's world.

In this regard, the United Nations and its members are very aware of the shortcomings of the organisation. For the UN to meet its potential it needs to reform. It needs to better prioritise its work to meet the needs of member states.

This was the essence of the Secretary-General's second term reform initiative, presented last September, which seeks to strengthen the organisation to better respond to the priorities established in the Millennium Declaration and to meet the needs of Member States.

The General Assembly adopted by consensus a resolution that supported efforts to reform the organisation. New Zealand has been actively involved in supporting the proposed reform initiatives. We will continue to speak out in favour of strengthening the organisation and reform of its organs, including the Security Council and the use of the veto.

New Zealand remains a firm believer in the multilateral system. The United Nations is not a perfect organisation, but it remains true that New Zealand and any state can achieve far less in isolation than it can working collectively with other states under UN auspices.

You have before you today a group of well-informed and stimulating speakers who I know will provoke debate and hopefully encourage thinking about what more we as a nation can do to promote the effectiveness of the UN. I wish you well for an interesting and fruitful day's discussion.

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